Every 10 or 15 years, Hollywood feels the self-righteous need to kick its own butt.
Movies such as “The Stunt Man” and “The Player” mock shrieking producers and dictatorial directors and egomaniacal actors who think they're artistes. Then those producers, directors and actors go back to being pampered plutocrats, believing they've proved they're regular guys with healthy senses of humor about themselves.
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Luckily, these stories are almost always enjoyable. “Tropic Thunder” is no exception.
It mocks big-budget movies with lots of bullets and explosions while delivering a big-budget movie with lots of bullets and explosions. It asks us to laugh at actors who beg for acclaim or agents who consider selling a client for a private jet – not selling him out, but actually selling him – yet it also wants us to smile at their foibles and admire their chutzpah.
Even the presumed villain, a money-grubbing executive who can't string three words together unless one refers to a body part (Tom Cruise), prospers in the benign atmosphere of this satire. “We're not really evil or crazy,” the film says. “Because if we were, we'd have to learn from this parable and act decently and responsibly.”
Ben Stiller is the force behind this ensemble comedy: He directed, wrote the script with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, produced and stars as Tugg Speedman, an action star trying to resurrect his career after a shameless attempt at artistic respectability (“Simple Jack,” where he played a stuttering, mentally disabled man).
Tugg goes to Southeast Asia with the other leads of a Vietnam War drama, also called “Tropic Thunder”: rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), whose acting experience is limited to “Booty Sweat” commercials; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), smack-addicted star of the flatulent film series “The Fatties”; earnest Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the only actor who read the script; and Aussie Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a five-time Oscar-winner who's had his skin dyed black to stay in character as gruff Sgt. Lincoln Osiris.
The film falls behind budget at once. So military adviser Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) suggests the director (Steve Coogan) rig the jungle with cameras and send his actors into unknown territory, frightened and disoriented. This works until the five encounter heroin manufacturers who really intend to kill them.
The film teases and offends with an equal hand, from Stiller's maudlin portrayal of Simple Jack – “I went full retard!” – to the foul-mouthed Jewish financier, who could be Harry Cohn 70 years ago or one of the Weinsteins today. Chino's character sees nothing wrong with degrading women in rap videos, as long as he donates some of the profits to community service; at the same time, he provides a reality check for Lazarus, who speaks in platitudes gleaned from his brief study of black stereotypes.
The picture's full of in-jokes, from the Vietnamese drug-makers who actually speak Mandarin Chinese – hey, all Asians are the same, right? – to the speech about the politics involved in Oscar voting. The funniest thing about the fake opening trailers – one each for Black, Downey and Stiller – is that every one of these cheesy films could actually get made.
If you wait through the credits, you get one last joke in the fine print: The actors shot the whole movie in Hawaii, on the fabulously lush island of Kauai. So while they were shooting a story about indulged prima donnas, they were working themselves in one of the most tourist-friendly spots on Earth. You've gotta smile at that.